Jupiter, destroyer (and savior) of worlds


It has long been known that the advanced life on Earth may owe its existence to Jupiter, whose hulking presence and massive gravity well have probably saved our planet from many an asteroid collision. Not only has Jupiter attracted and destroyed asteroids that may otherwise have collided with Earth, but it has also flung asteroids entirely out of our solar system. Jupiter is the great guardian, protecting our little planet from the sort of repeated collisions that would have set back the development of life over and over again.

Now two scientists are postulating that Jupiter (and Saturn, in a secondary role) may be responsible for the very existence of Earth itself—because it destroyed the first generation of planets in the inner system, leaving a debris ring that later formed a second generation farther from the sun.

In the last two decades, planet-hunting has reached new heights, and astronomers have studied nearly 2,000 planets in other systems. It turns out that our system is pretty weird.

The typical planetary system is made up of a few super-Earths — rocky planets up to 10 times the mass of Earth — orbiting much closer to their stars than Mercury does the sun. These super-Earths are usually not only rich in rock, but also in so-called volatile materials that easily vaporize when heated.

This means that super-Earths “tend to have very thick and massive atmospheres with pressures that exceed that of the Earth by factors of hundreds, if not thousands,” lead study author Konstantin Batygin, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, told Space.com. In comparison, “the atmospheres of our terrestrial planets are exceptionally thin.”

Moreover, planetary systems that possess giant planets similar to Jupiter and Saturn typically have them much closer to their stars than in the solar system. Giant worlds known as hot Jupiters, whose orbits are only about one-tenth of the distance from Mercury to the sun, are some of the alien worlds that scientists have seen most often.

In attempting to explain the anomaly that is us, Batygin and co-author Gregory Laughlin gamed out a scenario called the Grand Tack. In this version of our early solar system, Jupiter formed, then migrated in toward the sun. There, its massive bulk and gravity destroyed the first generation of smaller, rocky planets—the ones orbiting extremely close to the sun, where the inferno of heat would have precluded the formation of any advanced life as we know it.

Once Saturn formed, it drew Jupiter back out, leaving the shattered remnants of those early super-Earths to reform into the second generation of inner planets. These were much farther out than the first, since the bulk of the debris ring closer to the sun would have spiraled in and been vaporized. Because they formed later, farther from the sun, and from a different set of material than their predecessors…

This would explain why Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are younger than the outer planets, and why they are both smaller and have much thinner atmospheres than inner worlds seen in other planetary systems.

Jupiter and Saturn have always fascinated me due to their size, beauty, and the awesomeness of their satellites, but now I have a whole new reason. They might be responsible for us.

Posted in astronomy | 2 Comments

Pantsers and planners

Every now and then, when I post something over on my Chronicles of Alsea blog that I think will have broader appeal, I’ll pop a link over here. Today’s post is on pantsers and planners.

Authors generally divide themselves into two groups: the pantsers and the planners (also called outliners or plotters). Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants, letting the narrative carry them. They may not know the ending of the story until they write it.

Planners meticulously outline their story and know where it’s going from the first word. They don’t often get stuck in a “oh crap, what’s next?” moment because they’ve already figured out what’s next.

And never the twain shall meet (or at least, hardly ever). They’re a bit like prescriptivists and descriptivists in the grammar wars: if you have both groups at a party, there should probably be a lot of alcohol and no ripe fruit.

Read the rest here.

Posted in writing | Leave a comment

This ‘n’ that

While working hard on deadlines, I kept tossing interesting things into a folder and thinking I’d blog them later. That folder needs a good cleaning, so here’s a link dump to start off your weekend.


In a classic example of “science because we were curious,” researchers have discovered the mechanics behind the opening of a lily blossom. Turns out that the petals grow longer at the edges than they do in the middle. That puts stress on the bud, which eventually pops it open. The BBC has more explanation and a slow-motion video.


Also in the BBC, and under the category of “science made possible by how freaking tiny transmitters are these days,” the full migration route of the northern wheatear has been revealed at last. Until now, no one knew where these Arctic birds spent the winters. Turns out that northern wheatears, which weigh 25 grams (0.8 ounces), manage to fly 30,000 km (18,640 miles) from their breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra to sub-Saharan Africa. The daily distances they travel are staggering: an average of 290 km per day (180 miles) for those coming from Alaska.

Best quote from one of the researchers: “It seems that bird migration is limited by the size of the Earth. If the planet was larger, they would probably migrate even further.”

Little birds kick butt.


Here’s what happens when you mount a camera on a four-wheel drive mini-buggy and drive it into a pride of lions. The buggy didn’t survive, but the camera did and got some amazing photos.


I first heard Sarah Brightman as Christine in Phantom of the Opera, and fell in love with her voice then. She’s a rare opera talent, able to reach up and easily slide those high notes on a shelf, as if it took no effort at all.

Turns out that her greatest dream wasn’t to be an opera singer, though. It was to go to outer space.

Sarah brightman001 640x502

One has enabled the other. Brightman’s career has given her the means to purchase a $52 million ticket on a Soyuz spacecraft to spend ten days on the International Space Station. Having passed all of the medical tests, she’s been in 16-hour days of training since January to prep for her flight in September. She even has her own mission patch, which you can see here.


Meanwhile, back on Earth, some citizens of Hamburg, Germany have declared it’s “peeback time” on public urinators. Tired of the mess caused by men peeing on building walls, a group of activists have coated some buildings with a superhydrophobic paint that redirects the urine stream.

Peeback time

Signs warning of the peeback have been posted in some of these booby-trapped places…but not all of them. The explanatory video is pretty hilarious.


I could have sworn I blogged this one ages ago, but a search doesn’t turn anything up. Check out ten continuous minutes of dominoes falling—275,000 of them—including a world record spiral and some fairly brilliant tricks. Not everything works exactly as planned, which makes it more fun. And some of it is obviously meant for specialty audiences, but the sheer complexity of the set-up is mind-blowing.

That’s it for today’s link dump, but there’s more in the folder…

Posted in astronomy, biology, culture, Europe, life, science, video | 10 Comments

Those Scots are a different sort

Last Sunday, the owner of a Loch Ness tour company stepped outside to snap some photos of the “beautiful sky.” John Alasdair MacDonald (could there be a more Scottish name?) then captured a once-in-a-lifetime shot when a brilliant meteor flashed across the sky at the moment he pressed his shutter.

Loch Ness meteor

He posted it to his company’s Facebook page, and it has since gone viral. In an interview with The Independent, he said, “It was a complete fluke. An absolute fluke.”

Asked whether the experience had inspired him to pursue his photography skills on a more professional level, Mr Macdonald said: “I think that’s as good as I’m going to get!”

Trust a Scot to be so self-effacing. An American would have said something like, “Well, it was a happy accident, but I wouldn’t have gotten the shot if I hadn’t put myself in the right place for it. Luck is 90% preparation, after all.”

But that isn’t the best part. This meteor was part of a shower that fell over northwest Scotland that night, and the Maritime and Coast Guard Agency fielded six calls within a 20-minute period, all from concerned citizens reporting sightings of emergency flares.

In the US, meteor showers with brilliant streaks like this one mean the local emergency services get calls about UFOs, or attacking fighter planes, or some other nefarious cause. In Scotland, they worry that some poor soul is in trouble and fired off a flare to call for help.

They really are a different sort.

(Hat tip to McKenna.)

Posted in astronomy, culture, Europe | 3 Comments

Wallpaper Tuesday

Cordon Caulle eruption

On 4 June 2011, a Chilean volcano named Cordon Caulle began to erupt, and continued to do so for nearly a year. But the first days were the most spectacular, with explosions, huge ash clouds, and eye-popping lightning.

Lightning within volcanic eruptions is caused by the bits and pieces of mountain torn up by the explosion—rock, ash, ice from snow caps or glaciers—colliding within the ash plume and producing static charges. Since there are so many particles being produced by the explosion, all rushing upward and outward at Ludicrous Speed, the number of collisions is very high and thus so is the amount of static charge—which translates to a lot of lightning. Some call this a “dirty thunderstorm.”

Photographer Francisco Negroni took this shot from Lago Ranco on the second night of the eruption. I hope he used a very long telephoto lens.

(Click the image to vulcanate.)

Posted in wallpaper | Leave a comment

Birthing a book

My publisher recently told me that publishing a book is like giving birth. I think it might be true. While some authors can put out two or three books a year, my gestation period was much longer than nine months. I can also attest to there being some pain involved. The worst part, though, is letting go.

This blog has been quiet lately because as my book neared its release date, the demands on my time intensified. I’ve never had a deadline quite like this one, where something I labored over for more than a year approached a point where I had to open my hands and let it fly, without any more edits, tweaks, fixes, or fussing. It’s not like wrapping up a research project and turning in the final report. When The Caphenon flies on March 14, it will be out there for people to read and pass judgment on. That judgment part is a tad nerve-racking.

The process has been fascinating, though, so I thought I’d share it for those who might be intrigued by a peek inside the world of publishing.

The Caphenon 500x800

The first people who saw my manuscript were my beta readers. I have several of them, all with different areas of expertise. They help me with fact checking, offer viewpoints I can’t achieve on my own, and give feedback on their own reception of the story arc and character interactions.

Beta readers are very familiar to me—I wrote five fanfic novels starting in 2002, so that part of the process is unchanged. What does change are the names and faces, because beta reading is a labor of love and most people can’t keep doing it year after year.

After the beta readers had their say, and I tweaked and fixed and added and subtracted to (almost) my heart’s content, the manuscript went to the line editor.


Quick explanation—there are different types of editors. A substantive editor is usually the first to touch a manuscript, because her job is the big picture stuff: plot and character consistency, point of view issues, extraneous text, etc. She hands off to the line editor (sometimes called the copy editor now, though in theory those are two different roles), who digs into the technical aspects: grammar, dialogue attributes, word repetition, fact checks, punctuation, spelling, and much more. After the line editor comes the proofreader, who goes through looking for consistency errors (for example, a character’s name being spelled two different ways), spelling errors, double spaces or periods…the small things that others may have missed.

Proofreaders were originally tasked with looking at a manuscript after it had gone to print—they were examining the first proof, hence the name—and catching things like page layout issues, inconsistent chapter title fonts, etc. These days the varying editor roles have really gotten blended, so a proofreader can end up copy editing, and a line editor may do substantive editing…it gets confusing. In a big publishing house, there could be four editors looking at a manuscript: substantive editor, line editor, copy editor, and finally proofreader. Small publishing houses cannot afford that, so the job titles get blurred.


Because I’m also a line editor for my publisher, I enjoy a lot of freedom in the editing process, which is a great perk. One of the Ylva editors and I look over each other’s work, and play what we call “editing ping pong.” When you start discussing the use of commas in compound predicates, you know you’re in the weeds.

After the line editing, my manuscript went to the proofreader, and from there to the graphic artist who does our layouts. He created the artwork for the chapter titles and laid out the manuscript, a process that can get pretty detailed. For instance, if the layout results in an orphan (a word that ends up by itself on a line at the end of a paragraph), it needs to be manually adjusted to resolve the issue.

Chapter 16


(An example of the chapter title art in The Caphenon.)


The graphic artist sent the manuscript back to the publisher for approval. The publisher sent it to me as well, so more eyeballs could check the final layout. We made notes on issues and sent it back for adjustments. The new version came back, we made a few more notes, and after one more round we were done. Now the layout could be sent to the printer…and it was time to create the e-books.

This is something new in the world of publishing. Layout for print editions is not the same as layout for e-books. Because there are so many different types of e-readers (Kindles, iPads, Nooks, other tablets), all of which may be independently adjusted for font, type size, etc. by the readers, there is no way to have a definitive layout in these formats. Instead, the text must flow freely depending on the device, the application being used, and the reader’s personal settings.

So two more layouts came my way, one in the .mobi format (Kindle) and one in the .epub format (everyone else). We checked these for errors as well—and found a few, because it’s unavoidable when running text through those converters—made notes, sent them back, received the adjusted version, and checked those over as well.

If you’re getting the impression by now that I’ve read my manuscript about eighty times in this process, you’re right.

But wait, there’s more! While all of this was going on, we were also dealing with the cover design. This starts early, because it requires the author to say, “I want X and Y and Z, but in purple,” and then the graphic designer sends a rough draft of A, B, and C in violet-blue, and the author says, “Um…kind of like that, except with this instead,” and it goes back and forth. This is a case of two artists with radically different ways of seeing the world trying to communicate their vision, and wow, it is hard. I’m frankly amazed at what our graphic artist produced for us based on my pathetic attempts at describing my vision. In fact…let me give you an example.

Here is what he produced after I sent him a hand-drawn outline of my starship.

Caphenon outline

And here is what we ended up with after several rounds of explanation and “right, but it needs to be higher here and flatter there and not so pointy” comments.


I saw a ship in my mind’s eye when I wrote my novel, but I didn’t have the capacity to see it in schematic-level detail, which is why describing it to someone trying to draw it was so hard. But seeing it here? Oh yeah—this is MY ship. In fact, after this drawing and the actual schematics were done, I ended up going back into my manuscript and changing a few things to match up with this wonderfully real image I could look at right there on my computer screen.

Once the book cover was done, it had to be produced in half a dozen different iterations. A print cover is not the same shape as an e-book cover (it’s much wider), and different e-readers take different sizes of cover images…and then there’s the print edition’s back cover and spine. Which brought up issues such as, do we put the series name on the spine, or just the book title? What about the series logo? Should it orient toward the back of the book to match the title, or should it orient toward the bottom of the book so that it will be right side up when the book is shelved?

When these details were decided, we actually had the necessary parts for a book.

Did I mention that while all of this was going on, I was also rewriting and editing the next two novels in the series?

But wait, there’s more! Because we didn’t stop with the production of a book. I’ve run my own website for thirteen years, housing my fanfic novels, so it was a no-brainer that I’d create a new website for this series. What startled me was my publisher’s willingness to step up and help with it. Her help, and that of our graphic artist, turned the new site into something much shinier than I could have managed alone. In fact, it’s more than shiny. It’s downright gorgeous. And I could go on about it, but I’ll just send you there instead.

It’s at chroniclesofalsea.com. Check out the maps, the caste shields…oh, and there’s a blog there, too. Yes, I am insane enough to run two of them. This one will continue to be my geek blog, while my Alsea blog will focus on writing—peeks into the process, updates, notes on software and other tools that make a difference, photographs of the piles of chocolate that fuel the whole process…you know, author stuff.

And in eight more days, you can order The Caphenon and read it for yourself instead of seeing me yap about it. If you’re really impatient, you can preorder the Kindle e-book on Amazon right now.

Posted in writing | 36 Comments

Oranges to excess (or, “Orange you done yet?”)

Although the Algarve doesn’t really have a winter (it just goes straight from autumn to spring), we call the oranges that ripen this time of year “winter oranges,” and they are the sweetest of all the varieties. I adore winter oranges.

Oranges and juice

This is the result of a normal morning session with our juicer—a sad lineup of flaccid husks and a proud glass brimming with the good stuff. I can gulp down one of these a day, easily, and wish for more.

So I got to wondering: is there a danger in overusing the juicer? What happens if we drink too much orange juice?

My first thought was that the acidity could damage the stomach lining, but our own stomach acid is pretty brutal, so that’s not really an issue. The lining of the esophagus is more fragile, as is the enamel on our teeth, but it seems more folks damage those while drinking carbonated beverages than orange juice.

There are two main dangers with an orange juice overdose. The first is with excessive Vitamin C. Our bodies can only metabolize so much Vitamin C and will excrete the rest, but sometimes we can’t excrete it fast enough and it builds up. In that event, there are some unpleasant symptoms, ranging from stomachaches and cramps to vomiting, insomnia, and kidney stones.

But wait, there’s more! Orange juice is also very rich in potassium. And while our bodies depend on potassium (it’s a critical element in the operation of our nerve cells), there is such a thing as too much. In reading up on it, I found this interesting case history:

Over a period of a few days the 51-year old subject of this case history developed muscle weakness that progressed to flaccid paralysis in all four limbs requiring urgent hospital referral. Admission laboratory testing revealed severe hyperkalemia, serum potassium 9.0 mmol/L, a level associated with high risk of life threatening cardiac arrhythmias and sudden cardiac arrest. Emergency treatment was successful with return of serum potassium to a normal value of 5.0 mmol/L within a few hours. Neuromuscular function was restored over the same time period. In the absence of renal insufficiency (the most common pathological cause of hyperkalemia) and with exclusion of endocrine causes, this episode of hyperkalemia was finally attributed to excessive ingestion of orange juice…

By now you may be worrying, much as I did: “But I love orange juice! It’s good for me! And now you’re telling me I can paralyze myself with it? And risk a heart attack?”

Let’s read a little further:

…when the patient admitted drinking 2.5 litres of orange juice (potassium concentration 450 mg/l) every day for the preceding three weeks to quench thirst during a spell of hot weather.

Holy juicers, Batman! Two and a half liters per day??

Okay, I think we’re all safe.

Posted in food, Portugal, science | 4 Comments

SDO Year 5

What has collected over 200 million images and 2,600 terabytes of data, and just celebrated its fifth anniversary?

The Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO. And I have to admit that when I saw the part about “2,600 terabytes of data” my eyeballs nearly fell out. That is a metric sh*t ton of data!

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory…provides incredibly detailed images of the whole sun 24 hours a day. Capturing an image more than once per second, SDO has provided an unprecedentedly clear picture of how massive explosions on the sun grow and erupt ever since its launch on Feb. 11, 2010. The imagery is also captivating, allowing one to watch the constant ballet of solar material through the sun’s atmosphere, the corona.

To mark the SDO’s anniversary, NASA made a glorious highlights reel. I started to mark down the moments when something really impressed me, so I could tip you off here, but gave up when one image after another qualified as gorgeous. This is a beautiful video, choreographed to lovely music. Sit back, fire it up in fullscreen HD, and remember: you’re watching our star.

(Hat tip to Joe.)

Posted in astronomy, video | 4 Comments

Wallpaper Monday

Crater Lake

Oregon’s only national park, a geological wonder, and one of the most awesome bike rides in the US: Crater Lake National Park.

And yes, it’s a lake inside a volcano. Not just that, but it’s the deepest lake in the United States, and one of the ten deepest in the world. And it is COLD.

This is already on my own computer screen. Grateful hat tip to Erik.

(Click the image to craterate.)

Posted in Oregon, wallpaper | 2 Comments

Epic snow breaker, backups and more

Let’s get the day started off right and watch Canadian National Railway locomotive 2304 plow through deep snow near Salisbury, New Brunswick. You’ll definitely want to put this on HD if you can, just for the fun of it.

Only the first minute or so is taken up with the footage of the train breaking trail; the rest is simply the freight cars passing by. This is one of those things that North Americans take for granted and western Europeans are amazed by—trains that are so long they require several minutes to pass.


In other news, tech blogger Adam Engst proposed that yesterday—Friday the 13th—be designated International Verify Your Backups Day. He brings up an excellent point, which is that most people who have backups set them up once and then forget about them. Until something goes wrong, of course, and then they finally check their backups, find corrupted files, and watch a bad day get even worse.

Backups are great insurance, but they are not impervious to the issues that affect digital files. The software can have a hitch. The connection might be bad. The original file might get corrupted and then you’re backing up bad files one over the other. Anything can happen, and if you never verify your backup, you’ll never know until it’s too late.

Here’s a perfect example from the comments section:

I got hired as IT manager of a small company with 5 stores. Each store had rotating backups on 3 hard drives, one was kept offsite at all times.

So the day after I was hired, the main server drive crashed…I went to the backup drive, it was formatted FAT32, which has a max file size of 2Gb. The backup files were about 12Gb, so only the first 2 gigs were recorded. Every backup of every drive in the company was corrupt, due to incompetent setup. Nobody ever tested this for the 2 years the backup scheme was in place.

To make a long story short, they had to send the drive to a disk recovery company. Cost: $4000.

It was a great system—multiple, rotating backups with one offsite—except for the minor issue of being broken from the very beginning.

It’s easy to verify a backup: just randomly restore some files from different directories. Open them up and make sure they work. Hit all the main media types: a document, a music file, a photo, a video. If you’re like me and you make an entire bootable clone as a backup, then every now and then boot your computer off the clone. Launch a few of the apps and open some files.

Yes, it’s a minor pain, but it only takes a few minutes. And you will thank yourself if you verify your backup and find that it has problems. Because at this point, you can fix it. When your hard drive has failed and you have zero access to your original files, it’s far too late.


For type and font geeks, Frere-Jones is running a series of posts on the art of creating a typeface—an art which most of us take for granted without realizing just how much science, math, and general tweaking goes into it.

For example, lining up letters mathematically doesn’t work, because what counts is what our eyes see, and our eyes see straight lines and curved lines differently. If the O below was the same height as the letters to either side of it, our eyes would perceive it as being smaller. For us to see it as the same size, it must be taller. This is called overshoot.

Font overshoot

Typeface mechanics is full of such counterintuitive details, and they’re fascinating. Check out Frere-Jones for the first post in this series, and stay tuned for more.


And finally: It’s Carnaval time! Yesterday was the first day of festivities, when the kids get to have their own parade. I drove through town on an errand and had to stop to let thirty kids cross the street, all wearing matching outfits of dark green pants, red shirts (the colors of the Portuguese flag), and big, curly, bright yellow wigs. It was beyond cute.

Today is the first of the adult parades, which will feature topless women dancing madly—and in what I’ve come to see as tradition, the weather is cold. I think those women dance so frenetically because they’ll turn blue otherwise. Ironically, yesterday was sunny and warm. At least the kids got to stay toasty.

This is also the time when my little town more than doubles in size, and driving anywhere requires a certain level of masochism (or insanity).

I think we’ll walk downtown for lunch and check out all the crazies.

Posted in life, Portugal, tech | 7 Comments